Eighty years ago last month the Rams franchise was admitted into the National Football League. With the hard-won perspective of eight decades of play interrupted by one wartime stoppage in 1943, what could be said to have been the team’s greatest era?
Fans could debate this question for hours, with opinions inevitably shaded by hazy recollections of favorite players, fondly remembered playoff games, and nostalgia for one’s own life at a particular time and place.
But when objectively measured by sustained competitiveness and a generalized flash of greatness, one era stands out: 1945 to 1955. Consider that in this 11-season span the Rams competed for the NFL title fully five times, winning twice in two different cities, Cleveland and Los Angeles:
1945: 9–1, won NFL championship game
1949: 8–2–2, lost NFL championship game
1950: 9–3, lost NFL championship game
1951: 8–4, won NFL championship game
1952: 9–3, lost divisional playoff
1955: 8–3–1, lost NFL championship game
That’s a cumulative winning percentage of .680.
Of course the team’s glamorous run from 1973 through their first Super Bowl appearance after the 1979 season ran up a stratospheric win-loss percentage of .743. But to Rams fans’ everlasting sorrow, the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings repeatedly bumped off Los Angeles’s legendary collection of Chuck Knox, Jack Youngblood, Merlin Olsen et. al in the playoffs. Then the Pittsburgh Steelers downed an underdog Los Angeles team in Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl, right in the Rams’ own backyard.
Those were great years, but they yielded zero championships.
In the 1980s the Rams’ success in the early years of their residence in Anaheim were … in Anaheim.
And in the 1990s their out-of-nowhere NFL championship amid two Super Bowl appearances in three years in St. Louis were … in St. Louis—far, far from the team’s Southern California spiritual home.
So let’s withdraw to those true glory days of 1945 to 1955, when championship expectations were fulfilled and the Rams luxuriated as one of pro football’s truly elite and widely influential big-city franchises.
The Glory Days
The Rams’ first title in 1945 was no fluke, even though it was won just after the end of World War II. In 1943 and 1944, general manager Charles “Chile” Walsh—pictured in photo (right) with his brother and Rams head coach Adam Walsh (left) and new signee Les Horvath—cagily outran the league’s powers by taking his lumps in the short term and positioning his young team for the long run. As the war’s wagon of destruction rolled on, Walsh watched as the Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins, and Green Bay Packers—all determined to maintain their lofty station in the league—expended precious draft picks on inferior stateside talent that just happened to be available. Walsh, meanwhile, with not as much to lose, took a chance on blue-chip talent that might never play—or for that matter might not even return from the war.
Some didn’t. With the Rams’ first pick in the 1944 draft, Walsh selected Purdue fullback Tony Butkovich, not knowing the player had died at Okinawa just the day before.
But others of course did play. Van Nuys native Bob Waterfield received an honorable discharge from the military, graduated from UCLA, and joined established stars Jim Benton and Riley “Rattlesnake” Matheson to capture the NFL championship in Cleveland. Pennant in hand, the team could not have engineered a better entry into what was then the fifth-largest market in America than to arrive as instant champions.
Some said it wouldn’t last, that the Rams’ mostly losing ways in Cleveland were a contagion they couldn’t outrun. Al Wesson, a minority owner of the Los Angeles Dons and a conniver to keep the Rams out of Los Angeles, told the L.A. Coliseum Commission in early 1946: “Next year when good football players are back (…) the competition will be much tougher, and if Cleveland seeks its own level, the level it established before last year, it will be next to last in its division of the league.”
Rams Gain Their Footing in L.A.
The newly transplanted Rams did wander a bit on the field in the late 1940s, blinking in the southern California sunshine. Within a few years, however, Walsh’s 1945 selections Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch had joined the team and, with Waterfield, added up to three Hall-of-Famers the GM had prospected in only two years.
The Rams also were an immediate sensation at the box office. They dazzled in the Coliseum in their exotic rams-horns helmets, alone as the city’s major-league sports franchise for more than a decade, and setting a pro football record for single-game attendance at the time when they attracted 86,080 for a 27–24 win over the Bears on October 30, 1949. By 1952 their total-season home attendance had mounted to 994,000, almost double the number any other team had drawn.
After they were stunned (as was virtually all of pro football) by the upstart Cleveland Browns in the 1950 NFL championship game, the Rams bounded back in revenge in 1951. At home in the Coliseum, Los Angeles fought Cleveland to a 14–14 halftime tie. Then Norm Van Brocklin—sharing quarterback duties with Waterfield as the Rams’ roster carried an unheard-of two Hall-of-Fame passers—found Fears on a 73-yard pass play in the fourth quarter to deliver Los Angeles its first NFL championship, 24–17.
Just as significantly, the Rams had opened up a stupendously popular and profitable television era for the league. The 1951 title game was the first ever to be televised fully coast to coast.
Los Angeles was thwarted for several years in the early 1950s by the Bobby Layne–led Detroit Lions, then broke through again in 1955. Now at the helm was head coach Sid Gillman, an original Ram from the team’s first season in Cleveland with the American Football League and destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the so-called “father of the modern passing game.”
The Rams (8–3–1) edged the Bears (8–4) for the Western Conference pennant and hosted the 1955 championship game as distinct underdogs to the defending champion Browns. It was the third square off in only six years between Cleveland Past and Cleveland Present.
When Van Brocklin connected with Skeet Quinlan on a 67-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, the Rams were behind only 10–7. But they couldn’t hold off Cleveland quarterback Otto Graham, who was in his final game before his retirement and seemed intent on leaving a lasting mark on the league. He tossed one touchdown pass and ran for two more as the Browns whipped the Rams 38–14.
Twenty four years would pass before Los Angeles vied for another NFL championship. Sixty six years later, Southern California still awaits its second Rams title.
Is the Past Prologue?
But to think of that rarified period from 1945 to 1955! Multiple championship appearances. Perennial contention. Pace-setting marketing and game attendance. The talk of the league and the toast of Tinseltown.
Can Stan Kroenke, Kevin Demoff, and Sean McVay leverage their rebuilding program and a Pleasure Dome of a stadium rising on the southern horizon into another Rams golden era—a 21st-century update to a time when men wore hats and L.A. traffic was bearable?
The Rams’ infinitely patient fans in Los Angeles can only wait, watch, and hope.
James C. Sulecki is a Cleveland-area author of the book The Cleveland Rams: The NFL Champs Who Left Too Soon, 1936–1945 (McFarland, 2016). He is winner of the Professional Football Researchers Association’s 2016 Nelson Ross Award for “outstanding achievement in pro football research and historiography.” Learn more at www.CleRams.com; Twitter @CleRams.